With temperatures approaching 80 degrees last week, it looked like early June at Bass Lake - complete with campers, fisherman, party barges and WaveRunners skimming across the lake, and children frolicking in the chilly water.
They were welcome activities to Bass Lake businesses who have struggled the past seven years with a low lake - three years due to the dam retrofit project to comply with earthquake standards, and the last four seasons due to California’s drought.
But that’s all about to change this coming tourist season. As people were enjoying their picnics and family fun last Saturday, a six-man Pacific Gas and Electric Company crew were closing off the lake’s spill-way adjacent to the dam.
At the same time, the electric-generating power house below the dam will be shut down April 7, allowing much-needed water to stay in the lake. That, along with close to normal rainfall this winter, will allow runoff from high country snow to fill the lake by the Memorial Day weekend.
The lake is currently 73% full at 32,930 acre feet, which translates into a drop of 11.3 feet from full capacity. When full, the relatively small lake holds 45,410 acre feet. By comparison, Millerton Lake holds more than 500,000 acre feet of water.
Last summer the lake was down 20 feet, leaving many private and commercial docks sitting on dry land.
The average annual rainfall for Bass Lake going back to 1903 is 40 inches. The lake received 64 inches in 2010-2011, but the next four years, the average was only 50% of normal, with just 24, 22, 18, and 17 inches of rain respectively.
This rain season (July 1, 2015, to June 30, 2016), Bass Lake has received 36 inches of rain to date.
To allow for rain and snow runoff to enter the lake without flooding, the Miller-Lux Agreement of June 14, 1909, between several downstream agricultural entities and the San Joaquin Light & Power Company (the predecessor to PG&E), called for the lake to be lowered to 60% of volume (17.4 feet) by Sept. 15 and 50% (22.6 feet) by Nov. 1. The slow draw down of water for the Sept. 15 deadline historically started in mid-July.
However, in recent years, at the request of Bass Lake business leaders and area residents during PG&E re-licensing process, PG&E and the Bureau of Reclamation agreed to draw down the water later in the summer season, so the lake would be as close to full as possible, at least through Labor Day weekend.
The businesses rationale for the request is that over the years, the use of the lake for ‘recreation’ and the revenue that brings to the area far outweighs the relatively small amount of electricity the power plant generates.
Leslie Cox, president of the Bass Lake Chamber of Commerce, and owner-operator along with husband Ron of The Forks Resort, knows all too well the affect of the drought on Bass Lake’s economy. The Fork’s Resort dock has been high and dry the past two summer seasons, resulting in non existent boat rentals and gas sales, and a drop in food and beverage sales from all the people who liked to visit the resort, via boat, for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
But looking out at a floating dock last Saturday, Cox was all smiles.
“With the lake expected to be full this year, everyone is anticipating a good summer season,” Cox said. “Bass Lake is back and there is a good vibe all around the lake. All indications are that we will have a ‘normal’ summer season this year.”
The Bass Lake Chamber of Commerce is planning a Bass Lake block party, where each member will offer something to celebrate. The event is planned for Saturday, May 21, 2-7 p.m.
PG&E controls lake levels as outlined in the Miller-Lux agreement, although in recent years some adjustments have been made.